Communication breakdown between science and practice in education

Communication breakdown between science and practice in education

By: Yana Weinstein & Megan Smith

The goal of cognitive psychologists who are applying their work to the educational domain is to encourage “practitioners” (in this case, teachers) to do what has been scientifically demonstrated as effective. The model that we, as cognitive psychologists, are striving for is similar to that used in mainstream Western medicine: a drug is proposed, tested by science, found to be better than placebo, and put on the market.

However, Roediger (1), a distinguished professor at Washington University in St. Louis, reports that unfortunately, educational practice does not, for the most part, rely on research findings. Instead, somewhat dubious sources such as untested theories or – even worse – marketing ploys by financially interested parties, create fads in education.

Take, for example, Mark Barnes, self-styled “teacher, author, speaker, and publisher” who has declared a revolution on grading. According to his view, which in our opinion is eerily reminiscent of anti-vaccination rhetoric, “grades are lying to students”; but when pressed for scientific data to back up his claims, he says the following:

Yet, just like in medicine, how do we know if a solution is an effective solution when it has not been tested? What if it turns out to be a big waste of time, and money, and learning does not improve?

The concept of “learning styles” is a prime example of time and money wasted on ineffective practice. You may have heard of it – learning styles is the idea that students learn best in different ways. The most popular are visual and verbal styles: some students are “visual learners”, and learn best from images, diagrams, etc., while others are “verbal learners”, and learn best from text-based materials. Importantly, proponents of learning styles claim that in order to maximize student learning, we must “match” instruction to each individual learning style. After a thorough review of the scientific literature, a group of leading researchers (2) discovered that there was no evidence to support this view. That is, there was no experiment in the literature, meeting scientific criteria, demonstrating improved learning by matching instruction to learning styles.

To validate learning styles, an experiment would need to show visual learners performing better after engaging with visual material, and worse after engaging with verbal text material; while verbal learners had to perform better after engaging with verbal text material, and worse after engaging with visual material. That did not happen in any study. Instead, to cut a long, pseudo-scientific story short, sometimes some kids learned better with pictures, whereas others already did pretty well with just text materials alone, and didn’t need the extra boost from the pictures or other visual materials. If you’re surprised to read that the notion of learning styles is most likely a myth, read this piece, which summarizes and links to a lot of really compelling evidence.

So …

We cognitive psychologists are pretty adamant that we would like teachers to use evidence-based practices. But how do those actually involved in teaching – and those involved in training teachers – feel about the use of cognitive psychology findings in their teaching practices?

Laski (3) asked teacher-trainers across the US for their opinions. The survey asked instructors to what extent they thought cognitive psychology research was important to teaching mathematics. The results were clear: when asked how often teachers read cognitive journals to inform their teacher-training practice, the most frequent response was “Never”.

Furthermore, a damning report just came out about teacher-training textbooks. It turns out that these textbooks mostly gloss over, and often completely ignore the 6 most highly supported learning strategies (see also this blog post). While we were aware of the science-to-practice pipeline problem, after we read this report, the recent anti-grades movement started to make a lot more sense.

We advocate, like in the medical field, that teaching practices be tested. If evidence supports that a teaching practice is effective, then we should by all means adopt it, but continue to be flexible as the science evolves. After all, would you give your child a pill that had never been scientifically tested? Or worse, one that had been scientifically tested and was shown not to work? Would you bring your child to a doctor who was practicing on opinion and intuition alone, rather than the most updated science? We know we wouldn’t.

We all need to do our part to make sure research is accessible to educators, and that educators are open to research findings. That is the main reason we started Learning Scientists: we want to help open the lines of communication.

Please comment below. Whether you are an educator, researcher, parent, or student, we want to hear from you.


(1) Roediger, H. L. (2013). Applying cognitive psychology to education: Translational educational science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 1-3.

(2) Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest9(3), 105-119.

(3) Laski, E. V., Reeves, T. D., Ganley, C. M., & Mitchell, R. (2013). Mathematics teacher educators' perceptions and use of cognitive research. Mind, Brain, and Education7(1), 63-74.